A Retrospective as We Move Forward by Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas


Some of you know this story, but I think it bears repeating at this time. Like the Reader’s Digest volumes on my grandparents’ shelf, I’m going to tell you the abridged version.

I grew up in a small, Classical Reform congregation in Bayonne, NJ. Bayonne had a thriving Jewish community when my grandparents and mom and her siblings were growing up, but by the time I came along, most Jews had moved out to further suburbs.

My synagogue did not have a cantor on Shabbat, only holidays and special occasions. We had a lovely soloist who grew up in the congregation. (In High School and College, I would serve in that role along with some other congregants.) My synagogue did not have a youth group. (Once or twice I went to a USY event in a neighboring town with my friends from the slight-larger Conservative synagogue.) My synagogue confirmation class was comprised of me and another kid. If I recall correctly, there were 3 – maybe 4 – b’nei mitzvah my year. My synagogue had my childhood Rabbi, who I deeply respected. My synagogue had my family – mom, uncle, grandparents, great-aunt and second-cousins. My synagogue had people who knew me and were invested in my growth and success. My synagogue was an important, important place for me where I felt loved and at home.

My synagogue had a skylight over the pulpit. I was certain that I could feel God radiating from the crisp blue sky of a New Jersey fall at the High Holy Days.

I remember the moment during the Shabbat that I became a bat mitzvah when I thought in a perfectly clear way as I listened to the visiting cantor sing, “I can be a cantor.” In my nearly-13-year-old brain, my identity was two-fold: Jewish and Singer. It was clear to me – a kid from Bayonne – that I could and should be a cantor, the embodiment of singer and Jewish spiritual leader.

As I moved on to Rutgers for college, I began to meet my first full-time pulpit cantors. Let’s be really clear here. I’d never met a full-time cantor before I was 19-years-old and I was lucky to get to know a few during my college years.

In my senior year at Rutgers, I began my application process to our seminary, Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. My GREs were complete and application to HUC in motion. Matt and I were newlyweds when his dissertation advisor, Ben Bernanke, left Princeton to go to the Federal Reserve. Matt was head-hunted for a job here in Charlotte. The Economics Professor that I thought I married suddenly became a banker. The course of our lives changed forever. I decided I would take a year off before going on to HUC and we literally drove from my college graduation to our new home in Charlotte, NC. It wasn’t the plan; it was an opportunity we seized.

Shortly after we arrived, I came to Temple Beth El. A cold walk-in. I met Susan Jacobs. Rabbi Judy. Rabbi Barras.

I met Cantor Bernard. And he said he would teach me things.

And he did: to chant Torah and Haftarah, to teach and run a b’nei mitzvah program, to create a service, what the prayer book means, to listen deeply, to bear witness to other people’s story. And so much more that I could not list even if I tried. Cantor Bernard built the scaffolding upon which all of the things that I would learn at HUC-JIR would rest.

I stayed, as we say, at the feet of my teacher for three years and then went on to seminary, back to the original plan, after a detour to a place that was clearly exactly where I was supposed to be.

The depth of my gratitude can never be expressed.

I am not my teacher. No one is, nor can or should we ever be.

I am a girl from Bayonne, who sees God in the blueness of the sky and the crispness of the breeze, who feels connected to thousands of years of the Jewish people in each and every note.

I am a cantor and could not be more proud to be your cantor.

L’chayim – To life and to new beginnings together.

3 thoughts on “A Retrospective as We Move Forward by Cantor Mary Rebecca Thomas

  1. Lee Blumenthal

    What an absolutely beautiful description of your path to being a Cantor!!! You can write as well as sing, but we all knew that…

  2. Ginny Rosenberg

    What a beautiful story as well as a wonderful tribute to Cantor Bernard. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Rabbi Matt Friedman

    Thanks for sharing a piece of your journey. Undoubtedly you are now “the cantor” to many and in future years they will tell stories like yours. I too was fortunate to grow up with an amazing role model, Rabbi Gerald Raiskin z’l and one of my rpoudest moments was when I became his first student to be ordained by HUC. I can’t count the number of times I thought to myself, “What would Rabbi Raiskin do?” Some day, if it hasn’t happened already, a young person…or perhaps a not so young person will ask herself, or himself, “What would Cantor Thomas do?”

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